I knew there was something wrong the moment I saw her. She was standing at the top of the steps on the northbound Belmot Red Line platform, and she was doing that off-kilter leaning-only-at-the-waist thing that people do when they’re really, really drunk.
But she wasn’t really acting drunk—and on further observation, she seemed more lethargic than intoxicated, more physically unstable than chemically impaired, as though she might be suffering from a neurological disorder.
Granted, I didn’t have much time to observe her; I reached the platform as the train was just about to pull into the station. And I wasn’t on an anthropological mission anyway—I had gotten a (way cool) tattoo about 10 minutes earlier, and that was pretty much the only thing I was interested in thinking about.
It was around 7 pm on a Wednesday, and the woman was dressed as though she might have been coming home from work as maybe a cashier in a diner or a housekeeper in a motel. She looked like she didn’t have a lot of money, but she’d worked hard to look as nice as possible within the limits of her budget.
But in sharp contrast to her tidy appearance, there was clearly something wrong with her. I even saw a man walking cautiously away from her as I came up the stairs, as though he’d been moved to step in and see if she needed any help.
I half-interestedly absorbed all this in the 15 seconds between when I reached the platform and when the first cars of the train started rolling by us. At that point the train had slowed down significantly—though it was still going fast enough that you couldn’t make out any faces in the cars as they whizzed by.
The woman started shuffling toward the train. But she didn’t stop at that magical at-least-a-foot-away point where everyone else stops. No, she didn’t stop shuffling until the train was rolling by her about an inch from her face. And she was still wobbly, bobbing and weaving dangerously close to the frames around the windows and doors … and the gaps between the cars, which with one ill-timed wobble could easily grab her, drag her along the platform and crush her in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers.
My brain, not processing what I was witnessing very efficiently, kept me frozen in my tracks as she stood there. I figured maybe she was extremely nearsighted and this is how she always caught the train. I figured the man I’d seen walking away from her was some kind of friend who’d help her if she needed it. I wondered at what point onlookers are supposed to decide that an unstable woman doing dangerous things on a train platform needs intervention. I wondered all of this in the space of a couple seconds.
The guy she’d been talking to earlier—whose brain was obviously the only one fully engaged on the platform—finally ran up and grabbed her by the back of her coat and yanked her away from the train. Barely registering his presence, though, she gave him an unfocused scowl and determinedly wobbled back to her position an inch away from the moving cars—which, after all this, were still going pretty fast.
And then it happened. She wobbled too close, and the frame of a train window CLOCKED her in the head. The momentum spun her around violently, her face an instant mess of blood and bruising and train grime. Yet she never fell over, never dropped her bag—in fact, aside from a brief stunned expression, she never even really looked as though she realized what had just happened. Not even when she reached up to her mouth and spit a bloody tooth into her hand.
By then, the train had stopped and a sea of people spilled out onto the platform. I saw her wobble onto the car directly behind the one I entered. Through the windows, I watched her take her seat. I watched her fish a dirty Kleenex out of her purse and try to sop up the bloody mess on her face that she obviously wasn’t completely comprehending. I watched her mumble and yell and draw stares like the crazy homeless woman the people around her thought she was … the people who had no idea that she’d just come within a hair of dying a grisly, horrible death in front of hundreds of helpless onlookers.
And I felt sick.
“That woman is drunk off her ass.”
I turned around to see the guy who’d pulled her away from the train a few moments earlier. He’d obviously seen her get hit, he’d been watching me watch her, and he looked even more shaken than I felt.
I told him I figured he knew her because he was the only one interacting with her. He said he’d just been kind of trapped into watching out for her as she stumbled around the platform before the train arrived. He said she reeked of alcohol, and that she hadn’t even been sure she was at the right train station. He said she’d refused his help when he offered it.
And then I felt sick and angry. Angry that this woman’s alcoholic stupor was causing so many strangers so much anguish. Angry that her choices almost got her mangled to a bloody pulp in front of a crowd of people whose lives would be forever altered by helplessly watching her die. Angry that only one person on our entire platform was unjaded enough to step in and offer her a meager bit of assistance. Angry that her “pro-life” government was so busy grandstanding over one hopelessly vegetative woman who gave good press that it couldn’t offer meaningful assistance to ambulatory, sentient people whose lives were far too unremarkable to fire up the faithful.
The man and I kept talking, watching her absently tend to her wounds through the train window. A few stops later, she got off and shuffled toward the steps that would take her down to the street.
Her face was still a mess. The Kleenex in her hand was soaked. And she still looked like she had no idea that anything had happened to her.
But, for once, she was walking straight. Upright. As though the events of the evening had at least given her a moment of sobriety.